Police made their first arrests in relation to the Oregon standoff on Friday as questions about the future of the occupation swirl.
Protesters have occupied buildings on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for two weeks now. Although policemen from around the state have been gathering in the nearby town of Burns, the protesters have remained staunchly at their posts in the refuge.
Except Kenneth Medenbach, of Crescent, Ore. On Friday, Mr. Medenbach was arrested under suspicion of operating an unauthorized vehicle when he left the refuge for groceries, reports the New York Daily News.
Police found Medenbach’s stolen Malheur Refuge van at Safeway, now with signs on the doors that read “Harney County Resource Center,” the protesters new name for the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.
This is not the first time Medenbach has been arrested. In 1995, Medenbach was convicted for illegally creating an unauthorized, heavily fortified campsite in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington state.
According to the court that sentenced him two decades ago, there was "evidence that Medenbach had attempted to protect his forest campsite with fifty to a hundred pounds of the explosive ammonium sulfate, a pellet gun, and what appeared to be a hand grenade with trip wires."
Authorities made another Malheur related arrest this week, when they apprehended one of militia leader Ammon Bundy’s bodyguards, Brian Cavalier, in Arizona. Mr. Cavalier was released by a judge, reports The New York Times.
What do these arrests mean for the future of the standoff?
Thus far, the government has been wary about escalating tensions. History has taught the federal government, notes The Christian Science Monitor, to use a gentle hand when dealing with armed insurrections. Similar occupations in the 1990s descended into gunfights.
In 1992, a confrontation between federal agents and Randy Weaver and his family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, led to the deaths of a US marshal and two of Weaver’s family members. Just one year later, an infamous shootout between law enforcement agents and a religious group, the Branch Davidians, led to almost eighty deaths in Waco, Texas.
Early in January, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s former chief negotiator Clint van Zindt offered the Huffington Post some insight into the FBI’s handling of such situations.
After Waco, says van Zindt, tactics changed dramatically. Waco’s bloodshed turned the FBI away from physical confrontation and towards negotiation. According to van Zindt, "The FBI has evolved since Waco. The FBI has practiced -- and brings to a situation like [Oregon] -- an approach that advocates endless patience instead of overwhelming tactical advantage."
A 2014 standoff between Cliven Bundy (Ammon’s father) and the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is evidence of this change in tactics. The standoff, which took place at Bundy’s ranch, outside of Las Vegas, ended peacefully.
Some say that the change in tactics was a mistake. “They were emboldened by their ability to run federal officials off at the point of a gun,” Heidi Bereich, the director of intelligence at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The New York Times.
Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward has expressed patience during the occupation, but says that "there is an hourglass and it's running."
In Burns, Ore., another group, the Burns Paiute Tribe, reminds officials that they, too, have been trying to reclaim the Malheur Wildlife Refuge as part of their tribal history.
The Refuge is also home to about 300 historic sites and 4,000 artifacts. The Burns Paiute Tribe is now pressing charges against occupiers, and has stated that the presence of militia members at the Refuge is defiling sacred sites, reports the Washington Post.
Tribal Chairwoman Charlotte Rodrique says she is concerned about the artifacts at the refuge. Ms. Rodrique says, “As far as I’m concerned, our history is just another hostage.”
Many critics of the government’s patience with protesters say that nobody should be able to break the law. The recent arrests could be a sign that tactics will change.
[Editor's note: In the original version of this story, a federal law enforcement agent who was killed during the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident was misidentified.]